Panama’s Under Siege, and The World Doesn’t Know About It
International news reports have touched on the blockades and protests taking place in the Republic of Panama since July 1, 2022. These reports have not portrayed the scope of the mayhem that the protestors have caused. “Protests in Panama” doesn’t cover it. We are under siege.
According to Al Jazeera and other sources, the protests happening in Panama include picket signs, marching, and chanting. Some of the roads are obstructed as well. In all, though, the reports showcase large groups of people engaged in solidarity.
In fact, only 5% of Panamanians participate in the protesting.
In most of Panama, the only form of visible rebellion is the blockading of streets. The Pan-American, side streets, and even bridges within a town that connect one neighborhood to another, have been barricaded with tires, ropes, fires, and men. Few exceptions to crossing the thresholds have been made.
This total shutdown of transportation devastates the economy, the government, and the people:
- Chlorine tablets for the national water supply can’t be delivered to the local utilities. We have been threatened with having the water turned off.
- Shelves are empty of food. Those with money have been hoarding. Those without have purchased staples that the government has had the price artificially reduced as a stop-gap measure.
- Farmers are losing their crops because they are unable to get them to market. One ex-pat purchased ripe papayas from a desperate farmer. He was watching his yearly income rot in the back of his truck. I retrieved the papayas late at night when one of the blockades had been lifted. I distributed them among my neighbors desperate for fresh food. Some, are desperate for any food.
- In tourism mecca Bocas del Toro the hospital has halted ambulance service. Those blocking the roads have refused them passage.
- A local taxi driver here in my village of Puerto Armuelles was physically threatened for an act of kindness. This local taxi driver considers many of his clients personal friends. He drove a wheelchair-bound ex-pat to the grocery store before it was boarded up last Friday. Spotted by another taxi driver, the threats ensued.
- A taxi carrying a young family of tourists was stopped at a blockade. He couldn’t take them to the Panama City airport for their return flight. They walked. They grabbed their backpacks, suitcases, and small children and began jogging down the highway.
- Employees can’t make it to work. Store owners who live in or near their shop remain closed because no customers can come.
The government, the economy, and the infrastructure teeter near collapse.
On a personal level, we are running low on propane. Propane is our fuel for hot water and our kitchen stove. I heft the remaining 40-pound tank up and down our stairs depending on whether we want to bathe or cook.
On the first day of the total road blockage here in Puerto Armuelles, I came down with a sinus infection. I am still battling it awaiting the opportunity to see a doctor.
The complaints of the blockaders are many, and deserve redress:
- Skyrocketing prices for gas and food and other inflation,
- the selling of our hydroelectric power to foreign countries,
- kowtowing to the pharmaceutical “mafia,” a local term for the pharmaceutical companies that commandeer deals resulting in extravagant profits,
- the continuation of a state of emergency due to the Pandemic.
The underlying issues of government corruption, however, are at the core.
Since Noriega, the citizens have known corruption reigns. Perhaps most outrageous, a small cadre of ruling families is basically on the dole. Official records show a 19-year-old young woman making $4,000 a month working for the government. Her younger brother who is not even of age makes a similar amount. Called botellas or bottles, these elite family members receiving handouts from the ruling party must end.
That one family discussed above brings in $30,000 a month. In contrast, the minimum wage for a full-time maid is less than $300 a month.
Panamanian President Cortizo has proposed solutions including turning back prices as well as restrictions on government travel. Most provinces and comarcas (indigenous regions) are amenable to the president’s overtures.
Our province of Chiriqui is not. The blockades will continue. At least for the foreseeable future.
I have a favorite joke that is not as funny when my propane is running low and my sinus infection continues. Still, I share it here:
A Mexican politician, a Guatemalan politician, and a Panamanian politician were good friends. Once a year they met for a weekend of drinking, storytelling, and all-around friendship. One year, they met in Mexico. As they sat around a table in a restaurant overlooking Mexico City, the Mexican proudly pointed at the stadium across the street.
“You see that stadium?” he boasted. “I raised all of the funds to have it built.”
His two friends dutifully offered him kudos.
Then, the Mexican politician added while patting his wallet in his back pocket.
“I got 10% of it is right here.”
The next year the three politicians met in Guatemala. As they sat around a table in a restaurant enjoying themselves one evening, the Guatemalan pointed out the window at a boardwalk hugging the shore of a large lake.
“See that boardwalk,” he boasted. “I raised all the funds to have it built.”
His two friends dutifully offered him kudos.
The Guatemalan politician added while patting his wallet in his back pocket.
“I got 20% of it right here.”
The next year the three politicians met in Panama. Enjoying themselves together one evening, the Panamanian pointed out the window at an empty field.
“See that airport,” he boasted. “I raised all the funds to have it built.”
His friends confused didn’t respond.
“You don’t see that airport over there?” the Panamanian politician asked.
He added while patting his wallet in his back pocket.
“I got 100% of it right here.”
The corruption needs to be curbed. Yet, the blockades need to end.
Many project that within the next three to four days the blockades and related protests will end. Hopefully, deals will be reached on the main provisions: The price of gas, the price of medications, and the price of food.
The botellas, the side deals, the hustling, the skimming, the blatant embezzling, may need to await reform.
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